Looking to Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Election

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena recently dissolved parliament. The election will be held on August 17; a new parliament will gather on September 1.

Yet what happens next is still far from clear.

To complicate matters, Mahinda Rajapaksa could contest in the country’s upcoming parliamentary election. Rajapaksa has stated that he’d only be interested in contesting as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and has indicated that he’d like to become prime minister. There’s also been talk of Rajapaksa forming a new political party, but a clear SLFP split would likely guarantee that the United National Party (UNP) wins the most seats in the parliamentary contest. We can expect to hear more about this in the days to come. Besides, even if Rajapaksa decided against contesting, the former president could use his popularity to influence the outcome.

Sirisena’s proclamations on dissolution had become increasingly unreliable and prolonged political uncertainty is never a good thing. It came later than expected, but this move still allows Sirisena to preserve some credibility; it’s good that he chose not to wait any longer.

sl 2015Why else might time be of the essence?

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R.) report that focuses on wartime abuses in Sri Lanka will be handed over to the Sri Lankan government towards the end of August. Consequently, the world will be well-aware of the contents of this controversial document before it’s officially presented during the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which begins on September 14 in Geneva.

Under Rajapaksa’s leadership, Sri Lanka ended a brutal civil war and his legacy as a man who won the war remains firmly intact. The release of a U.N. report over wartime abuses will likely strengthen extremist Sinhala-Buddhist elements within the country, a constituency whose support Rajapaksa has consistently relied upon. Besides, over the years, Rajapaksa adroitly used international pressure over wartime abuses to strengthen his position domestically. Look for a similar sequence of events to transpire once the media gets its hands on a preliminary copy of that U.N. report.

More generally, a range of Pollyanna analyses has confidently stated that Sirisena is serious about reconciliation and bringing the country together – that he is a man who can be trusted.

How can we be so sure?

Sirisena should be commended for having the courage run against Rajapaksa and for the passage of the 19th amendment, which trimmed presidential powers. That said, there’s still little indication that reconciliation or accountability (for wartime abuses) are priorities for him. Public statements are not policy. Besides, Sirisena’s had so much difficulty controlling the SLFP. Even if he wanted to make firm progress on controversial issues like accountability, it’s unclear that he’d be able to do so.

What are the foreign policy implications of dissolving parliament?

Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament is certain to be welcomed by the international community, especially the United States and India.

Since Rajapaksa was thrown out of office, the Obama administration has been coddling the Sirisena administration. It’s hard to predict how much longer that will continue, although Sirisena had promised to have a new parliament in place by September. Holding parliamentary elections in August ensures that Washington will remain optimistic about the country’s recent transfer of power.

When Sirisena challenged Rajapaksa for the presidency, one could have argued that he had the nation’s best interests in mind. Most members of the SLFP did not support him and had he lost the election, his days as a party member would have been over. Yet, having won the election and become the official head of the party, party politics and SLFP unity became increasingly important.

As Sri Lanka gears up for another critical election, numerous questions remain unanswered. How active will Sirisena be during the election campaign? Will a divided SLFP finally come together? And what will be Mahinda Rajapaksa’s next move?

Rajapaksa’s defeat (and the peaceful way in which he left office) really shook up Sri Lankan politics. And yet six months on, so much remains unknown and more drama is sure to come.

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